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Wayne County prosecutor defends handling of Davontae Sanford case

Kym Worthy (file photo).
Kym Worthy (file photo).

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy defended her office’s handling of the Davontae Sanford case today.

Sanford confessed to four Detroit murders in 2007, when he was just 14 years old.

But a judge overturned Sanford’s convictions and freed him this week.

Worthy says that became possible only after a recent Michigan State Police investigation she requested found a Detroit police officer lied about key aspects of Sanford’s confession.

Questions about Sanford’s guilt arose as early as 2008, when a hit man named Vincent Smothers confessed to the same crimes.

But Worthy says Smothers refused to testify during years of litigation, as lawyers who took up Sanford’s case tried to get his conviction overturned.

“So this was not the Wayne County prosecutor’s office running rogue, and trying to do something illegal to Mr. Sanford,” Worthy said.

“We went to court, we were in court for over two years, after we received the information. This was completely litigated, passed on by a Circuit Court judge, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of this state,” she said.

Worthy said it only became possible to clear Sanford after the State Police report last month.

That report found that former Detroit Deputy Police Chief James Tolbert “contradicted prior sworn testimony” about Sanford’s confession—specifically, that Sanford drew a diagram of the crime scene from scratch.

“We believed that this sketch was a key piece of evidence,” said Worthy, noting that she only received that report “20 days ago. Not 9 years ago. 20 days ago.”

Worthy's office is still reviewing potential perjury charges for Tolbert.

Worthy also said Sanford’s defense lawyers, and specifically the State Appellate Defenders Office, “didn’t follow through” on numerous opportunities to clear him during years of legal challenges.

Sanford's attorney Samuel Damren released a written response on behalf of the defense team.  

“As a former prosecutor, I understand why Prosecutor Worthy does not want to comment on any matter related to the pending investigations of the Runyon Street killings involving other individuals," it read in part. "We remain grateful for her stipulation to vacate Davontae’s conviction and sentence, her decision not to re-try him, and also Judge Sullivan’s order releasing Davontae from prison."

It added that "the defense will have no further comment on criminal proceedings involving the Runyon Street killings." Worthy said her office is also currently reviewing murder warrants for Smothers and possible accomplices as a result of the State Police investigation.

Former Detroit TV journalist Bill Proctor was less restrained.

Proctor helped bring the problems with Sanford's case to light, and continued following the story for years. He has since founded Proving Innocence, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned.

Proctor says Sanford's story is "sickening," and called Worthy's defense of how it played out "another horrific chapter."

“The real bottom line is…anybody with a title like prosecutor can stand behind process and procedure," Proctor said. "This was about her having in her hands, in her custody, with police backing, clear-cut information and evidence that an adult was paid to do these murders...

“And for her to show all these bits and pieces of paper, that this diminished 14-year-old child signed to say this is our proof and justification for incarcerating this innocent child, is crap.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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